Killing For Religion

Today's topic sprung to mind from a dinner table conversation last week. Somehow I found myself mentioning William James' notion of "spiritual judgment" — that one should assess religion in terms of how it benefits or harms its adherents, rather than on the basis of its historical or psychological origins (in his terms, by the fruits rather than the roots). In addition to James' criterion, I offered Rappaport's idea of adaptive health, suggesting that religious behavior should be further considered in terms of its effects on the total health of the people who practice and encounter it. This met with the example of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists: is it not (at least hypothetically) their view that killing the people they kill — say exploitative American capitalists — is adaptively healthy?

I didn't have sufficient opportunity to pursue this question at the time, as the conversation soon moved on to other topics. However, I also found myself somewhat uncertain, for while my initial response to the terrorist question is certainly that their killings are not adaptive, nevertheless I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would readily grant that taking a life would be adaptively healthy indeed.

Today, then, let us explore this question, keeping in mind that our approach is media theory. To begin with, what is the medium in question?

None other than religion itself, or rather, what I tend to call 'religion proper,' that is organized and exclusive religion. The Abrahamic traditions, of course, are the readiest examples at hand, but to a greater or lesser extent any religious tradition which unequivocally claims to be ultimately true belongs to this species. Buddhism tends to be my favorite example because many people loosely regard it as an open-ended and liberal religion totally unlike the Abrahamic ones with which they are more familiar.

If self-defining, exclusive religion is the medium, what is its message? Simply one of separation. Belonging to any 'religion proper' allows one to draw a line between 'we' and 'they' which doesn't otherwise exist. Humans are certainly often quite different from each other, and can even seem downright strange by comparison at times. However, ignoring the undeniable fact of our overarching similarity is a grave oversight. Religion enables us to bypass the contradiction of our simultaneous variation and unity, giving us a way to believe the differences are really substantial, when in truth no one can deny that they are ultimately only incidental.

Religion proper, as a medium, thus provides a message of division, and the idea of division accommodates the possibility of adaptive killing. However, the lynchpin of this possibility remains the idea of division. If people are divided, one group destroying another can be adaptive for that one group. Sects prosper by the oppression and obliteration of other sects. What are often known as the world's 'great religions' became great by deliberately undermining and aggressively invalidating the traditions native to the places into which they spread. Indeed, within the narrow scope of a view which privileges a single species above all other living things, this sort of destruction is adaptive.

However, the notion of true adaptive health demands we look beyond the interest of a single organism in a system which consists of complex interaction between many different forms of life which all balance one another and share the fundamental similarity of being alive. In terms of human conflict, this means that we must recognize that humanity is a unified species, ultimately inseparable by imagined lines of religious or other division. As such, it cannot be adaptive for one sect to kill for its own benefit, in any way real or perceived.

Killing may yet be adaptive for other reasons, generally when one group or individual constitutes a maladaptive agent against the health of all people. However, that possibility is certainly a discussion for another day.

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